The Trouble with Preterism
How would your view of Christianity change if you came to believe that the Rapture, Tribulation, Antichrist, mark of the beast, Second Coming of Christ, and many other supposedly future events had taken place in the first century A.D.?
There is a group of evangelicals who look to the past instead of the future to find fulfillment for many of these prophetic events. This view is commonly known as Preterism; and it produces one of the most extreme forms of Replacement Theology, since preterists widely teach that God has divorced Israel and replaced it with the Bride of Christ—the church.
The term Preterism is based on the Latin preter, which means “past” or “gone by.” Preterism teaches that many of the prophecies in the book of Revelation and in the Olivet Discourse were fulfilled in the events surrounding the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Many preterists actually believe that we are living in some form of the new heavens and new earth of Revelation 21—22.
Generally, the preterist spectrum can be divided into two categories: partial and full Preterism. Full preterists hold that all Bible prophecy was fulfilled with the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. If there is a future Second Coming, they say, the Bible does not speak of it. Full preterists also believe there is no future bodily resurrection, which places them outside the realm of historic Christian orthodoxy.
Moderate preterists believe that most, but not all, prophecy was fulfilled in the A.D. 70 destruction of Jerusalem. Although they see many traditional Second Advent passages as fulfilled, they do believe a few passages still teach a future Second Coming (Acts 1:9–11; 1 Cor. 15:51–53; 1 Th. 4:16–17). They also see a future judgment and the resurrection of believers at Christ’s bodily return.
Full Preterism arose in North America during the 1950s and ’60s within Church of Christ circles. No doubt the American champion of full Preterism has been Max R. King and his son Tim, formerly of the Parkman Road Church of Christ in Warren, Ohio. Formerly moderate preterist David Chilton converted to full Preterism several years before his death in 1997. Other full preterists include Ed Stevens, Don K. Preston, John Noe, and John L. Bray. An amazingly high proportion of preterist websites advocate a full preterist position, even though they likely represent smaller overall numbers than partial preterists.
Partial preterists include a number of well-known evangelicals: R. C. Sproul, R. C. Sproul Jr., Kenneth L. Gentry, Gary DeMar, Greg Bahnsen, Gary North, Hank Hanegraaff (the Bible Answer Man),1 and Steve Gregg. Many lesser-known partial preterists inhabit virtually every community in North America. Preterists are often found within conservative Reformed circles like the Orthodox Presbyterians (OPC) and the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA). Many people within the homeschool movement and conservative, politically active evangelicals favor Preterism.
The Bible verse preterists use most widely in their attempts to establish their thesis concerning Bible prophecy is Matthew 24:34: “Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place.” (See also Mark 13:30; Luke 21:32.)
Kenneth Gentry said of this much-debated passage, “This statement of Christ is indisputably clear—and absolutely demanding of a first-century fulfillment of the events in the preceding verses, including the Great Tribulation.”2
However, I believe the timing of “this generation” in Matthew 24:34 is governed by the related phrase all these things, which refers to events Christ described in verses 4–31, which are the events of the Tribulation. Consequently, Christ was saying that the generation that sees “all these things” will exist until all the events of the future Tribulation are fulfilled literally.
Preterists ignore the fact in Matthew 24 that it is Israel whom the Lord is rescuing. Matthew 22—23 speaks of Israel’s judgment, which did come in A.D. 70, but one should not ignore the identity of the nation rescued in 24:27–31. It is saved Israel, so this is clearly a future event. This is a literal interpretation and one that was not fulfilled in the first century.
Preterists believe they are driven to an A.D. 70 fulfillment of Revelation because, like the Olivet Discourse, they believe it says it was to be fulfilled “soon.” Thus they say terms like quickly and at hand teach that Revelation had to be fulfilled within a few years of its writing. Even though virtually everyone down through church history has held to an A.D. 95 date for the writing of Revelation,3 preterists say the book was written in A.D. 65. The A.D. 95 date renders the preterist view impossible and fortifies the argument that the terms quickly and at hand teach imminence—that Christ can return at any moment—not that He will return soon.
Placing most prophecy in the past greatly changes one’s overall view of God’s plan for history. Many preterists believe we are beyond the Millennium and currently reside in the new heavens and new earth. Traditionalists, on the other hand, believe the new heavens and new earth refer to the eternal state.
If we were in the new heavens and new earth, then the New Testament epistles would not directly apply to believers today because they were written to instruct Christians how to live between the two comings of Christ. Since preterists often employ an allegorical rather than a literal hermeneutic, some do not believe in a literal interpretation of the book of Genesis or in young Earth creationism and a global flood.
Further, some no longer hold to a personal Devil or angels, whether elect or evil, or a literal hell. Some within the emerging church, like Brian McLaren, are attracted to Preterism. More within that movement, however, tend to idealism;4 but none support a literal interpretation of the Bible.
Preterism produces one of the more extreme forms of Replacement Theology because it widely teaches that the theme of Revelation is about God’s divorce of Israel, which is replaced by the bride of Christ, meaning the church. In fact, Kenneth Gentry teaches that the scroll in Revelation 5 “would be a bill of divorcement”5 against Israel.
This position radically opposes that of Renald Showers and The Friends of Israel. Wrote Showers in his book Maranatha Our Lord, Come!
The sealed scroll Christ took from the right hand of God in heaven (Rev. 5) is the deed of purchase for mankind’s tenant possession or administration of the earth….The seven seals on Christ’s scroll make it totally secure from tampering or change. Thus, they are the guarantee that Christ’s scroll deed is absolutely irrefutable evidence that He is the Kinsman-Redeemer who has the right to take tenant possession of the earth.6
“As the Kinsman-Redeemer,” wrote Showers, “Christ will keep the earth to administer it for God’s purposes (Rev. 11:15). Christ ‘shall be king over all the earth; in that day shall there be one Lᴏʀᴅ, and his name one’ (Zech. 14:9).”7
Christ will take possession and rule Earth for a literal 1,000 years from amid a restored nation of Israel. At the conclusion of that Millennium, eternity will begin.
According to the preterist view, however, Rome’s destruction of Israel in A.D. 70 annihilated Israel’s future. Israel has no national future whatsoever. It is not surprising that most preterists do not support the modern State of Israel and tend to be sympathetic to Palestinian propaganda.
For the last 150 years, the Bible-study movement in America has taught that Scripture reveals a future for national Israel. It has taught Premillennialism (that Christ will return before His literal, 1,000-year reign on Earth begins) and a pretribulational Rapture (Christians will be removed from Earth before the Great Tribulation). During the last 25 years, however, there has been a steady decline of systematic Bible study and teaching within evangelicalism. Today evangelicalism has moved away from the belief that we can understand what the Bible says if we interpret it literally. Instead, it emphasizes what interpreters believe about the Bible. The postmodern mindset that has descended on too many American evangelicals predisposes them toward a less-literal, subjective hermeneutic where readers make the Bible relevant to themselves and their culture, rather than desiring to understand what God intended so that they may change their personal lives and cultures to correspond with timeless biblical standards.
Although many still believe the Bible plainly says what it means and means what it says, our numbers appear to be on the decline, especially in the academic world. Unless the general direction of things changes, we are headed backward to a new theological dark age when allegorical interpretation ruled the church and produced many false teachings and practices. This is why Christian leaders must become informed about the hermeneutical shift that has taken place within evangelicalism so that they will not be misled. Laymen need to seek out those ministries and churches that teach the Bible literally and support them in every way possible. Maranatha!
- Hanegraaff denies that he is a preterist, not because he does not take the preterist interpretation of various biblical passages, but because he does not want to be classified. He is clearly a preterist to some degree.
- Thomas Ice and Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., The Great Tribulation: Past or Future? (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1999), 26–27.
- Mark Hitchcock, “The Stake in the Heart—The A.D. 95 Date of Revelation,” in The End Times Controversy: The Second Coming Under Attack, Tim LaHaye and Thomas Ice (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2003), 123–50.
- Idealism is an interpretative approach of the book of Revelation that sees all the imagery of the book as nonliteral symbols or ideas that will not be fulfilled in history by specific events, usually symbolizing the general struggle between good and evil.
- Kenneth L. Gentry Jr., He Shall Have Dominion: A Postmillennial Eschatology (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1992), 402.
- Renald E. Showers, Maranatha Our Lord, Come! (Bellmawr, NJ: The Friends of Israel, 1995), 88–89.
- Ibid. 88.